Minister reinstates Diaspora Independence Day torch amid outcry
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Minister reinstates Diaspora Independence Day torch amid outcry

Regev said to reverse decision after receiving ‘heartbreaking’ plea from French Jewish community facing surge of anti-Semitism

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev at the annual international Municipal Innovation Conference in Tel Aviv, on February 28, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev at the annual international Municipal Innovation Conference in Tel Aviv, on February 28, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev has reversed her decision to cancel the participation of Diaspora Jewry in the annual torch-lighting ceremony that marks the opening of Israel’s Independence Day.

Regev told the Israel Hayom daily on Thursday that she reinstated the Diaspora torch after receiving “heartbreaking” pleas from Jewish communities to carry on the tradition she began two years ago.

“A wave of anti-Semitism is spreading throughout Europe, and France in particular,” members of the French Jewish community wrote, according to the report.

The letter reportedly cited statistics saying anti-Semitic attacks and acts of vandalism were up 74 percent over last year.

“In light of the unshakable connection between the French Jewish community and our homeland of Israel, we would be honored if a member of the community would participate in the Independence Day torch this year,” the community said.

Rabbi Marvin Hier (right) and Michael Steinhardt light one of the torches at Israel’s Independence Day ceremony on Mount Herzl. May 1, 2017 (Twitter)

Regev told Israel Hayom she received numerous pleas to reinstate a Diaspora representative at the ceremony, but the letter from the French Jewish community was behind her decision.

“Despite this hostile atmosphere, they continue to be proudly Jewish, wearing yarmulkes, praying in synagogues and operating kosher shops and restaurants,” Regev said. “I am a traditional woman, and so this really touched me.”

Regev’s office had announced on Monday that there would be no representatives of Diaspora Jewry light a torch at the torch-lighting ceremony that marks the start of Independence Day, which begins this year on May 8.

She didn’t give a reason for ending the honor, but the announcement came in the wake of a difficult year in relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, and days after tensions over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall boiled over into violence and vitriol.

Regev reserved a torch for a Diaspora Jew at the ceremony starting in 2017, when honorees included Birthright Israel founder Michael Steinhardt and Simon Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier. Last year, American actress Mayim Bialik was chosen to light a torch but declined because of her “Big Bang Theory” commitments. Other candidates considered to light the torch included US President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz and performer Barbra Streisand. The slot was never filled, and there was no Diaspora representative in the 2018 ceremony.

A picture taken on February 19, 2019, shows swastikas painted on graves at a Jewish cemetery in the French town of Quatzenheim close to the German border (Frederick Florin/AFP)

Her decision drew criticism in Israel and abroad. Naftali Bennett, the diaspora affairs minister, called it “an insult to all the Jewish people.”

The Ruderman Family Foundation was one of the first Diaspora groups to criticize Regev’s “misguided decision,” which it said “threatens to unnecessarily set back relations between Israel and worldwide Jewry.”

After the announcement of Regev’s change of heart, Shira Ruderman, Director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, congratulated the culture minister.

“Minister Regev has shown that you can strengthen the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Israel is the state of its citizens, but it is also the state of the Jewish People… I congratulate Minister Regev for listening to the criticism, doing the right thing, and showing we can create a respectful discourse which gives Diaspora Jews a place in Israel’s public sphere,” said Ruderman.

Relations between Jerusalem and the liberal Reform, Conservative and secular streams who make up the Jewish majority in the Diaspora have been strained over the ultra-Orthodox authorities’ strict control over religious institutions in Israel, and by various moves by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government that they see as hurting Israel’s democratic image abroad. Right-leaning and Orthodox Jews tend to be more aligned with the current government.

JTA contributed to this report.

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